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Department of Anthropology - SDSU

Understanding Socio-ecological Impacts and Responses to Large Scale Environmental Disturbance in the Western Solomon Islands

Tahitian Fisherman

Sally Holbrook, Andrew Rassweiler, Andrew Brooks, Hunter Lenihan
SDSU: Matthew Lauer
Centre de Recherches Insulaires et Observatoire de l'Environnement Polynésie française: Tamatoa Bambridge

See NSF's recent press release announcing our grant along with 10 others.

Project Abstract
This project presents an unparalleled opportunity to assess resilience in a coral reef social-ecological system (SES). Over the last several decades members of our research team associated with the Moorea Coral Reef Long-Term Ecological Research site have documented how reefs around the Pacific island of Mo’orea, French Polynesia, have been impacted by major perturbations but have consistently reassembled to coral dominance. This resilience to disturbance is a key component of coastal sustainability, as it maintains the reefs in a state capable of providing critical ecosystem services. The resilience of reefs in Mo’orea is particularly striking, given that coral reefs in many regions have experienced abrupt and potentially irreversible shifts from a coral dominated state, with complex structure and a rich fish community, to a macroalgae dominated state with fewer fish. The central aim of this proposal is to better understand the adaptive capacities of Mo’orea’s SES that enable the coral reefs to return to coral dominance following large-scale disturbances. To do this, an integrative social and natural science approach will be employed that addresses place-based questions about resilience, sustainability and adaptive capacity of coastal systems, while developing a framework for addressing more complex questions about the Mo’orea SES, as well as providing a model for the integration of ecology and social science in other coastal systems.

Intellectual Merit:
The dynamics of state shifts are fundamental to understanding the resilience and long-term sustainability of coral-reef social-ecological systems, yet the interplay between anthropogenic and ecological feedbacks are poorly understood in these systems. SESs with high population densities, widespread coastal development and intense resource exploitation typically show declines in the critical adaptive capacities that underpin resilience to local environmental variability, but Mo’orea has maintained its resilience despite rapid development. This project will explore how the complex feedbacks in a coral reef SES maintain its capacity to withstand large-scale ecological disturbances. By its very nature, this study requires substantial interdisciplinary collaboration between social and natural scientists. Anthropological fieldwork focusing on the human dimensions of coral reef use, traditional governance, and indigenous ecological knowledge, will document how local communities perceive, respond to, and manage changes in ecosystem state. Ecological models will describe the dynamics of coral, algal and fish communities, including the feedbacks that make these communities susceptible to abrupt shifts in ecosystem state. These components will be integrated in a systems modeling framework that includes feedbacks both within and between the human and natural communities, quantitatively modeling how humans change their behavior as a function of ecosystem state and how the ecosystem is affected in turn by human activities. A key objective is to bridge the gap between the data collected by social scientists and the dynamic ecosystem models developed by ecologists, as this is crucial to understanding the resilience and long-term sustainability of coastal SESs worldwide.

Broader Impacts:
This project will contribute to more sustainable management of coral reefs by identifying pathways that confer resilience, highlighting emerging vulnerabilities, and suggesting policy initiatives in areas such as integrated coastal zone management and sustainable development planning. We will simulate possible future scenarios, providing information about ways resilience might be maintained or eroded by potential changes in management and fishing practices. Finally, this research will evaluate the effects of specific current management actions such as MPAs on resilience, and compare the effectiveness of these actions to alternative strategies. Collaborative science and learning and stakeholder workshops will 1) ensure that local communities, NGOs, and government agencies have access to our findings, 2) improve local awareness of environmental feedbacks, and 3) foster interaction between local Mo’orea institutions and between local institutions and others at higher levels. This project will promote interdisciplinary research into coastal sustainability around the globe. The framework for bridging anthropology and ecology developed here will have applicability in a broad range of coastal SESs. We will train an interdisciplinary



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